What Difference Can Teacher Friendships Make at Schools?

Chemistry teacher Stephanie Watkins, Ph.D. and her assistant principal, Jai Wilson, Ph.D., deliver pizzas to students during distance learning. (Courtesy of Stephanie Watkins)

Positive student-teacher relationships increase both academic engagement and prosocial behavior at all levels of schooling. Teachers who offer individual students and entire classes the “educational friendship” of respect, appreciation and good old benefit of the doubt fundamentally alter experiences of schooling for the better. But what about teacher-to-teacher friendships? Are those just a nice bonus when they materialize, or does a warm, collaborative professional environment make a significant difference? It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in a school that teachers, students and entire learning communities can benefit immensely from friendships among adults on staff. The relevance of astronauts and bathrooms might come as a bit of a shock though. 

What teachers are up against

University of Virginia education professor Patricia Ann Jennings has spent the last decade studying teacher stress. “Often teachers feel very alone in their classrooms and they feel very disconnected from the other adults,” she said. Her research points to a handful of common stressors, things as simple as teachers having to “hold it” when they need to use the restroom, not being able to just walk away from conflict and lacking privacy. 

There’s actually robust research on the ill effects of isolated, confined environments, according to Emily Anthes, author of the new book "The Great Indoors." She recently told NPR that astronauts in space shuttles adapt by using tricks like creating “auditory privacy” with headphones. But teachers don’t have the luxury of psychological escape. They have to not only remain engaged in stressful situations but also manage them publicly. “Whatever is happening in that moment, you have to be able to successfully deal with strong emotions without harming yourself by inhibiting them (stuffing them, basically) or expressing emotions in a way that’s harmful to your students or the learning environment,” Jennings says. 

Her book "Teacher Burnout Turnaround: Strategies for Empowered Educators" explains that teachers are also regularly asked to achieve the impossible. “Not only are they being told they have to control these kids, but they are supposed to get everybody above average. Well, you can’t,” according to Jennings. Many teachers disagree with directives from above, and she says, “They’re being asked to teach in ways that we know are not effective and they are having moral distress. When you make kids sit down and practice for a test that you think is stupid, it’s horrifying.” 

Andy Hargreaves’s research backs Jennings up. “One of the things that most undermines teacher wellbeing is having to teach things you don’t believe in, and test prep comes out top of the list,” says the co-author of "Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All."

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The end result is burnout, and that was true before the pandemic thrust upon teachers a whole other set of expectations, responsibilities, challenges and a new brand of isolation. (For example, distance learning has made that “handling things publicly” challenge far worse, Hargreaves says. His research shows that Covid-19 “gives parents distorted observations of what teaching is usually like.”)

The benefit of teacher peer support

Everything Jennings knows about burnout suggests that strong, positive relationships between teachers will decrease it, and this conclusion finds support in research tying collaboration and common planning time to reduced teacher attrition.

Bianka Mariscal is in her sixth year teaching kindergarten at East Palo Alto Charter School. "Having a friend who can be that sounding board in order to support your kids in the way that you feel is best, it’s just great to have," she says. "Also, when you’re stressed out, it’s just a self-care thing.” 

Even when teachers “are having a really hard time with an admin” and have another appealing job offer, says Elizabeth Self, an assistant professor and teacher education researcher at Vanderbilt University, “if teachers are in a school where they have strong, close friends and allies, they will stay.”

There’s some evidence from medical fields that training together promotes the development of friendships, and that friendships promote learning, especially if there’s an “ask anything” culture. That doesn’t just mean the freedom to ask each other “dumb” questions, says Tamara Steffy, a professor of mathematics, but also “a genuine willingness to say, ‘What do you need?’” She says of two other math professors at Seminole State College of Florida, “We make each other better. We exchange ideas and perspectives all the time. Collaboration and friendship with colleagues has been a major support in my career—making my personal life richer and my professional experience more rewarding.”

Grace Nasnas took a picture of herself with Julie Edstrom and Tammy Steffy at a math convention. (Courtesy of Tammy Steffy)

The more teachers are given opportunities to collaborate, Jennings confirms, “the more their job becomes enjoyable and they also learn to solve problems together that by themselves they often can’t do.” 

The impact on teacher-retention, motivation and development may be even more pronounced for members of traditionally underrepresented groups. Elizabeth Self says implicit bias, microaggressions and other forms of racism in schools impact individual teachers differently, with targets historically faring better “when they had people there who could either fight alongside them, like in an activist sense, or at a minimum help sustain them psychologically.” Young teachers also stand to reap outsized rewards from logistical and social and emotional support from colleagues.

And, of course, the teacher stability, quality and efficacy wrought by both congeniality and collegiality in schools translate to real gains for student achievement. 

Kevin Palmer noticed another upside after team-teaching with colleagues for 30 years, over 20 of them at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.

“When the kids saw and understood the relationship we had with each other, the teachers that is, they felt much more relaxed and collaborative with each other," he said. "I think our friendship modeled for them a sense of camaraderie.” 

Common pitfalls: collective efficacy, going easy, and cliques

For Bianka Mariscal, it's important to have someone to talk to. “There have always been times where I can just go across the classroom to one of my friends, and be like, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell you about this day,'" she says. "You don’t feel as alone.” Hargreaves dubs this the “solidarity effect.”

Yet not all friendly interactions are created equal. “What usually happens, which is horrible,” Jennings says, “is by the time the teachers do spend time together in a lunchroom or in a faculty meeting, they often gripe a lot.” As legitimate as their grievances may be, it can create a “kind of a toxic adult environment,” she says, which is especially unfortunate given the research on what’s called “collective efficacy.” 

A meta-analysis published in 2011 tied student achievement levels to teachers’ beliefs about their ability, as a staff, to positively impact students. Teachers’ individual self-efficacy beliefs have also been tied to both job satisfaction and student achievement. In fact, Jennings says, collective efficacy has been identified as “the most influential factor in promoting student achievement, much higher even than students’ socioeconomic status, prior achievement, quality of their home environment, and parental support.” 

To enhance collective efficacy, teachers need to feel like they have a say, that is, a meaningful role and some agency with respect to what and how they teach. Gripe sessions, unfortunately, have the opposite impact. (Of course, two big pieces of collective efficacy—access to the resources needed to teach effectively and students’ preparedness to learn—fall well outside the control of even the most friendly, collegial and democratic school staff.)

There are other potential pitfalls that come with warm teacher-to-teacher relationships. Of one colleague, Kevin Palmer says, “her and I did often clash without it affecting our relationship,” but when it came to another good friend he says, “I loved teaching with her, but I will say that because of our friendship, I found myself reluctant to disagree or challenge her suggestions as much as I did other team members.” 

Building close interpersonal relationships only helps schools and students if the adults on campus are “continuing to develop healthy workplace environments for people to work across and outside of friendships,” says Elizabeth Self, and that can be really hard when, say, there’s a grade-level team that includes some teachers who are great friends and others who aren’t.

“When does it move from people drawing on each other as resources in terms of friendships, to a ‘we have a clique problem’ kind of thing?” says Self.

Building true collegiality

Luckily, a good deal of research has been done on how best to boost collaborative professionalism in schools. “Since the 1990s, professional learning specialists have created a number of approaches—such as data teams, professional learning communities, critical friends circles, and learning walks—designed to make professional collaboration more deliberate and effective,” explain Hargreaves and Michael T. O’Connor in a 2018 paper based on research in the U.S. and four other countries. It’s entitled, “Solidarity with solidity: The case for collaborative professionalism.” 

One thing they learned? “Collaborative practices that have been mandated in a top-down fashion, or that seem ‘contrived’ can easily backfire, causing teachers to collaborate even less than before.” 

In order to avoid jeopardizing existing relationships, like Mr. Palmer’s, “collaboration needs specific designs, protocols, structures, and processes to guide conversations,” they say. Take feedback, for example. Under the right conditions, they say, “feedback can be very critical and teachers still welcome it.” Those conditions can include:

  • creating a norm of “encouraging and not merely tolerating differences of view”
  • remembering to bring the discussion back to what benefits students
  • assigning roles in a group so it’s someone’s job to be critical, not their choice or personality
  • a sense that the work product being criticized belongs to the whole group, not an individual
  • ground rules such as “maintain a respectful and considerate tone”

Bianka Mariscal agrees that norms and phrasing can make all the difference. “Some of my closest friends work with me and are on the same team, and one of them has been my lead in the past," she said. "Based on her interactions with me, when she says, ‘Okay, let’s talk through this,’ or like, ‘Oh, I noticed this happened,’ I know she knows what works best for me. If you didn’t have that, I think it would feel like an attack on the way I was doing things. But I know, just from interacting with her, it’s more of like, ‘I’m here to help you.’”

The ultimate goal is this sense of purposeful togetherness where each individual feels valued for their own authoritative knowledge, a collective feeling of common purpose, and a generalized belief in the worthiness of the enterprise, including confidence that something substantive and valuable will result. 

Stephanie Watkins, a teacher at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, says that’s exactly what her chemistry team has going for it. There’s a veteran teacher who brings substantial experience with both content and classroom management; then Watkins and a colleague who both have a moderate amount of time in the classroom but a good deal to share when it comes to “real-world experience and hands-on demonstrations”; and a teacher just barely out of college, valued by his team for “a fresh look at updates to education and overall positivity.”

They agreed “that to understand chemistry you have to do chemistry and not just read about it,” she says, so they worked together to solicit donations for, acquire, and assemble at-home lab kits for all 524 of their chemistry students.

Stephanie Watkins, a teacher at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky and her team of four chemistry teachers solicited donations for, acquired, and assembled at-home lab kits for all 524 of their students. (Courtesy of Stephanie Watkins)

When teachers engage in collaborations like this, they grow closer. Their closeness facilitates further collaboration. That should sound familiar to those who’ve read about cooperative learning in children. Research in that area shows that carefully created and scaffolded group work can produce an expectation of cooperation which in turn breeds liking, and the more students like each other, the more they’ll cooperate. 

The role of administrators

To get this kind of positive feedback loop started, administrators can’t just “take an innovative collaborative design and try to graft it onto their schools,” Hargreaves and O’Connor say. Relationship-building must come first to produce the necessary feeling of solidarity. They report that one network in the Pacific Northwest brought together teachers at 30 rural schools. Before teachers began to work together deeply, they first had to collaborate superficially.

 Mariscal, the California kindergarten teacher, says her administrative team encouraged grade-level teams to take their kids on outings together before Covid-19 and, now, to do happy hour Zooms. “We also have buddy teachers,” she says, “so every Friday our class will get paired with an upper-grade class, and they’ll do activities together, and it’s also a great way to connect with a teacher who’s not in your cohort.” Last year, she got a lot of value out of the program. “It was just a great time for us to be like, ‘How’s it going?’ you know, that check-in with each other, and not just about teaching but about our own lives.” 

Bianka Mariscal stands with her colleagues at East Palo Alto Charter School. (Courtesy of Bianka Mariscal)

Which brings us back to Jennings and collective efficacy. The initial step to achieving it, she says, “is building a feeling of connection at all levels of the school. Connection requires feelings of safety, affiliation, and collective sharing of positive emotions.” 

It’s unsurprising then, that research has tied administrators placing importance on relationships among adults on campus with increased levels of openness, trust and comfort, which in turn lead to improved school climate, increased teacher retention and decreased teacher resistance to initiatives. Collegiality can also be a tool for promoting and sustaining social change within a school, according to research from Jorge Ávila de Lima, a sociologist at the University of the Azores. Yet “compared to almost all other countries,” teachers in the U.S. have less in-school time away from their classes to collaborate or visit with other teachers, Hargreaves says, citing OECD data. 

Collective efficacy may be hard to achieve under current conditions, but teachers know it when they feel it. For Watkins, the chemistry teacher, it means comfort walking up to an assistant principal and saying, “Hey what do you think of this idea?” Together, they rolled out a Pizza Participation Challenge to boost attendance during distance learning. After delivering the first round of pizzas to student’s homes in late September, she said, “It was so worth seeing the look on their faces and receiving their kind thank you notes that expressed how grateful they were to feel so cared about by their teachers and principals.”

Yet stories like these ones don’t mean friendship on campus has to feel like one big round of "Kumbaya." Elizabeth Self reminds us that for collective efficacy to arise, teachers can think of friends on staff both in the colloquial sense—buddies, confidants—and also as allies. “Who is leaning more toward the same things you are?" she said. "Sometimes that includes people who are or can become friends, and sometimes it’s like, ‘I need somebody who can help me deal with this stupid bathroom policy we are dealing with right now, and I know this person tends to think like me around issues of students having more freedom, so I’m going to go to them so we can combine efforts.’”

This article is part of the “Friendship in Schools” series, which explores the complexities of friendship at various stages of learning.

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Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco.